The dark side of the online world, where nothing ever dies
I had “the conversation” with my 13-year-old son last week. No, not that conversation, the other conversation: the one about the internet.
My son’s iPhone has, in recent months, become sort of a fifth limb; he texts and instant-messages with a speed and dexterity that would put a professional pickpocket to shame. Given the amount of time he’s spending with social media these days, it seemed appropriate to remind him that on the internet nothing ever dies, so he might want to be mindful about what he’s launching into cyberspace.
“You never know,” I said. “What if someone got angry with you and decides to send around something you posted, just to be mean?” My son looked wounded. “I trust my friends,” he said. “They would never do that.” His tone made clear that my friends, by implication, would probably sell me out for 20 dirhams and a shawarma sandwich.
Confronted by his certainty, I suddenly felt like Exhibit A in a parenting self-help book: What should this parent say to her child in this situation? Does she shatter his innocent belief in the enduring power of friendship? Does she stay quiet and wait for the inevitable heart-break caused by someone hacking his account and sending around his goofy photos for all the world to see? Does she risk the equally inevitable adolescent eye-roll and exasperated sigh in order to pursue the conversation?
I didn’t want to burden him with my own tales of adolescent betrayal, which harken back to the dinosaur age (otherwise known as the pre-internet era), and so I decided to bite my cynical tongue and hope for the best. Perhaps some vestige of my concern would sink in, I thought, although given that the young are eternally deaf to the words of the old, I wouldn’t bet on it.
My sensitivity about how our social media presence can be manipulated was exacerbated when I read Dave Eggers’s book The Circle, which I didn’t like but can’t stop thinking about. The novel chillingly predicts a not-too-distant future in which a Google-like internet company gradually, with the tacit consent of most of the population, takes over the world. Personal privacy slowly gets whittled away until most people come to believe that “privacy is theft ... [and] secrets are lies”. My son wants to believe that no one would ever betray his personal online confidences, but in the world of The Circle, “personal” ceases to have any meaning.
My son is young yet; I don’t think there’s anything seriously untoward in his electronic effluvia, other than perhaps a few four-letter words, but our conversation, brief as it was, illuminated what I might expect over the next few years. It’s the eternal story of innocence and experience, youth and age, but now that story will be played out across the infinite fields of the Web and the terrain seems much more complicated than it did when I was the innocent, struggling with (and against) my parents’ experienced advice.
Watching one’s children grow up is also to watch them grow away. To use a slightly over-worked metaphor, we have to relinquish control the same way we did when we taught our children how to ride a two-wheel bicycle. At first we hold onto the bike, guiding it along; then we trot alongside in order to catch any big wobbles; and then ... off they go down the sidewalk. The metaphor works beautifully in much of life, but I’m not sure how it works when we’re training our kids to navigate the internet. How do you see a wobble, after all, if it’s virtual and not actual? There are no helmets that guard against Facebook collisions; you can’t brace yourself for a fall when you’re gliding along the instant-messaging highway.
I think my son sees my questions as those of a crotchety old lady railing against the inexorable wheel of progress, and maybe he’s right. Maybe we don’t need to keep anything to ourselves; maybe we don’t need shady areas in our minds and souls that we allow only ourselves and our gods to see. I’m not entirely sure how intimacy flourishes if love’s protestations occur only in a crowd-sourced, IM-based vernacular, but who knows? Maybe Romeo and Juliet would still love each other these days, but it would sound like this: Romeo: Wht lite thru yndr wndw br8kz? J=sun
These days, I guess, Romeo and Juliet’s relationship wouldn’t end with duels and poison. Their parents would just confiscate their phones and the love affair would collapse faster than you can say “Skype me”.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi